I am on the early flight to Ljubljana. The plane is packed with holidaymakers going on half-term ski trips, so I find myself in business class (free Adria Airways bottle of mineral water + sweet). I also get to read a three day old copy of the Wall Street Journal
– on the op-ed page former Estonia PM Mart Laar recommends continued free market reform as the best possible anti-crisis package
but the news pages suggest that if Austrian banks get cold feet the whole of the region could be brutally credit-crunched, not just the current problems cases of Latvia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
As we land I get a glimpse of alpine scenery and half an hour later I am standing outside the terminal looking for way to get the 25km from Brnik to central Ljubljana. There aren’t any buses for an hour or so, having narrowly avoided getting onto a tour bus to a ski resort, I opt for the minibus shuttle. I’m the only passenger , so the driver want to wait half an hour for some more flights to come into. I sit in the minibus sleepily reading a Swedish crime novel, while two flights land and various prosperous looking locals walk past heading for the small multi-storey car park. In the end the driver gives up and takes me on a loss-,mking journey into town, kindly dropping me off at my hotel.
The Slovene Democratic Party’s headquarters is a large villa just outside the city centre with party, national and EU flag on large flagpoles in the front garden. They’re busy, but in the limited time my interviewees make it clear that – as one would expect of the country’s main party of the centre-right – they don’t share the loose centre-left consensus and unfussed attitude towards the communist that pervades much of the rest of the Slovene political and social scene. They don’t quite match the confrontational free market élan that might mark conversation with Czech equivalents, but (Mart Laar aside) who has much free market élan left these days?
Slovenia’s Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs is on a top floor of a rather drab, square white gloomy socialist era shopping centre. Teenagers from a nearby school are hanging around outside smoking and gossiping. In the Ministry’s reception area, there’s an overpowering smell of varnish as the parquet floors are being resurfaced. The security guards, who seem to be from a private agency, ring around and having established that I am expected, take me through.without demanding any ID. The Ministry’s offices have the look and feel of a medium-sized company HQ.
My interviewees’ previous meeting is overrunning, so I have to waut. I look through my notes and study the childrens’ paintings on the wall. I don’t, have to wait too long however, and my interviewees turn out to be extremely open and helpful. One of the most interesting interviews , I’ve done in fact. “Tell our boss, we speak excellent English,” one of the officials jokes at the end (and, of course, they all do). The Slovene civil service may lack clockwork timing and bureaucratic punctiliousness of Czech official, but exudes an underlying efficiency and competence.
The weather’s still cold and but bright and sunny. Sitting in my heavily discounted hotel room opposite the main police station, I read through part of the statutes of Slovenia’s two main left-wing party with the helped of dictionary and some guesswork and look over the front page of Delo
. Mainstream parties are desperate to stymie a referendum initiative to block Croatia’s accession to NATO, because of an unresolved Slovene-Croat dispute over seaways and border demarcation. There are some issues with big Slovene companies with unemployment and retenchment, but I can’t quite follow the details., but I do understand that unemployment is over 10%. My left-wing interviewees tell me that Slovenia iswell placed to weather the storm, as it wisely avoided the perils of excessive foreign ownership and carried off many of the high social standards of the socialist period. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Slovenia again, so oater that afternoon on my final visit – to the University – I stock up on cheap and free books on Slovene politics.
Early morning service at the airport has improved: the coffee bars in the departure lounge are opening up before flights depart. I stand grumpily in line with travellers going to Prague while the expresso machine gets a final polish. “Do you take crowns?” a grey-haired American with a pony-tail and a wad of Czech currency in his hand asks. Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘no’. At last I get a my hands on a bela kava. It keeps me awake just long enough to take a look out the window at the clouds over Julian Alps as we fly out. My next sight is the M23 motorway near London Gatwick airport.